Thursday, October 27, 2011

Whither NASA's Planetary Program?

"Word has leaked out that in its new budget, the Obama administration intends to terminate NASA’s planetary exploration program. The Mars Science Lab Curiosity, being readied on the pad, will be launched, as will the nearly completed small MAVEN orbiter scheduled for 2013, but that will be it. No further missions to anywhere are planned."
- Robert Zubrin

"Rumors of the death of NASA’s planetary science program are greatly exaggerated, according to the head of the agency division responsible for that activity...'“It is not true the planetary program is being killed' [said James Green].

"...this is the most challenging budgetary time of my entire 33 year career."
- Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science at NASA Headquarters

"In 1980, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the NASA Administrator made the decision to shut down planetary exploration in NASA in order to free up funds for the development of the Space Shuttle.... The administration leaders told us, face-to-face, that the planets could wait because soon the cost of access to space would be so cheap that we could fly any missions about which we could dream.  
"We fought back, and they didn’t shut down planetary exploration. However, they did cut it deeply, resulting in a dark decade with no launches to and no data coming back from from other worlds.
"Imagine a NASA that for ten years (say, 2015 to 2025) ceases to explore the solar system and stops looking deep into the universe.  We’re in a similar situation today. "
- Dr. Louis Friedman (former Executive Director of The Planetary Society)  

I know that discussions of budgets are not the favorite topic of some of my readers, nor mine.  However, the recent news and commentary on budgets has been dire enough that returning to this topic seems appropriate.  Without funding, all the great ideas for NASA missions are no more than the paper or webpages they are printed on.  And so, I am publishing one of my few opinion pieces.  Please feel free to agree or disagree in the comments.

Four pieces of bad news, not including the unnamed sources cited by Zubrin, have triggered the concerns:

  1. The President's budget request for FY12 projected severe declines in out year budgets for the planetary program.  These cuts, if enacted in future years, essentially end NASA's ability to carry out Flagship scale planetary missions on its own for the foreseeable future.
  2. The President's Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has refused to allow NASA to commit the approximately $1.5B needed for its proposed joint Mars program with ESA.  No public reason has been given (but I have speculations, see below).
  3. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is severely over budget, and NASA has proposed to OMB that it cover the additional costs by in part transferring funds from other science programs, including, presumably, the planetary program.  No figures have been given, but my back of the envelope calculations suggest that the transfers, if approved by OMB and ratified by Congress, might cost the planetary program a Discovery mission.
  4. Current American law will require automatic cuts to all discretionary Federal programs, including NASA, if the two political parties are unable to overcome their differences on identifying future substantial budget cuts.  A figure published by the journal Nature suggests the automatic cuts could be ~11% for programs like NASA.  Again, that could cost the planetary program a Discovery or New Frontiers mission.

On top of this, NASA's human spaceflight program has been given an ambitious set of tasks that many don't believe it will have funds to fulfill without transferring funds from other programs (which has happened before and resulted in cuts to NASA's science programs).

I have been a manager at a major high technology firm, and I understand the challenges of budget crunches and trying to scramble to keep programs going and recraft roadmaps.  Dr. Green and his colleagues have my admiration for what they are doing and their honest assessments of the situation.

I also applaud the efforts of the planetary science community, Dr. Friedman, and The Planetary Society for advocating for a strong planetary program.  The political process, which will decide the level of funding, responds to strong community commitment.

With the information I have, however, I don't believe that OMB is necesarrily the bogey man preventing the planetary program from pursuing a great program.  NASA's two biggest programs, human spaceflight and JWST, are under funded.  Major new budget cuts to all of NASA are a real possibility.  If OMB approves the Mars funding, can it meet the commitments made to the Europeans in the out years without gutting the rest of the planetary program?  In addition, what America buys through the investment in the joint Mars program is the first mission in three needed to return samples from Mars.  Another ~$6B (Decadal Survey estimate) would be needed to complete the program.  If OMB doesn't believe the rest of the program can be afforded or has the necessary political support within Congress, then is the first payment a wise move?

As a strong supporter of planetary exploration, I favor the investment in the joint program because it also enables the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter and the European ExoMars rover, which would be a great mission in its own right.  However, spending American taxpayer dollars to fly European rover instruments to Mars probably do not make a strong sell within OMB.

The total cost for building the JWST and the three missions needed for the Mars sample return would be about $8B each.  European investments in a joint program might reduce the U.S. cost for the sample return by $2-3B.  OMB has the option to support JWST and build on the $3B already spent and the option to begin investment in a Mars sample return program now and save $2-3B through cooperative investments by the European Space Agency.

Dr. Green points out that the astronomical community has done a great job of making the case for the science of JWST and building political support.  My guess is that the real issue here is that the planetary science community has not made the political sale for the Mars sample return program, and as a result, OMB is reluctant to make the down payment.  

I remember the 1980 budget disaster mentioned by Dr. Friedman in the quote above well.  It led me to publish one of my first articles.  In those days, the seriously proposed planetary missions were Flagship-class.  A few people called for flying small, focused, and relatively inexpensive missions, some of which I profiled in that article.  Eventually these ideas would lead to the highly successful Discovery and New Frontiers mission programs that do great science at less than Flagship prices.  Check out the Messenger Mercury, Dawn Vesta and Ceres, and the Juno Jupiter missions for examples of what can be done.

Ultimately, the President's office and Congress will have to sort out priorities.  Is the James Webb Space Telescope's science higher priority than the joint Mars program with ESA and an eventual Mars sample return?  Is reducing the Federal budget deficit so important that NASA and many, many other programs should be cut?  (Funding for my research comes from some of the programs facing cuts, so I have skin in this game.)  

I believe that NASA's top science priority should be to understand the changes occuring to the Earth's biosphere on which we all depend.  I personally prioritize planetary science over astronomical science, but believe both are important.  Making the JWST's science NASA's top science priority after Earth Science is in no way a stupid call, but not the one I would make.  My major concern with JWST is that a single launch failure or design flaw could make several billion dollars in future investment a waste.  By moving forward with JWST, NASA is betting the bulk of its science program for the coming decade on a single mission.

In 1980, the only missions being proposed seriously were Flagship-scale missions.  Today, NASA has strong Discovery and New Frontiers mission programs that fly missions for much less than Flagship prices.  If the coming decade were to have the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return and each of the three Discovery missions that are current finalists (the Titan Mare Explorer, the Comet Hopper, and the Mars GEM geopysical mission) or equivalently good mission in their turn, it would be a good but not great decade.  

At the last Outer Planets Analysis Group (OPAG) meeting that I listened to, it was said that the last Discovery mission selection included three outer planet missions that would fit into the Discovery mission budget cap.  This is a new development and a major achievement for NASA and planetary science community.  The Discovery and New Frontiers programs can advance planetary exploration across most of the solar system.

NASA also is not only game in town.  Europe has two planetary missions in competition for selection, Russia has a Phobos mission ready for launch and lunar and Venus missions in development, Japan has another asteroid sample return mission in development, and India and China are building their programs of planetary exploration.  

As for Zubrin's claim, the quick denial by a NASA manager known for being straightforward leaves me doubtful of his claim.  There have been no other hints of this radical of a move by the administration.  Congress has supported NASA's science programs, and a sudden change like this requires conccurance of the administration and Congress.  Sometimes Chicken Little is right, but extraordinary claims require more evidence than a single uncited source.

I'll close with some words from a second article from Dr. Freedman that resonated with me: "As I have said many times, it makes no difference to Mars when it is explored or by whom, but it makes a huge difference to us, the people who own the program and carry it out. Just as when, nearly 20 years ago, the US abandoned the Superconducting Supercollider effort, it is one more piece of evidence of a great country ceding its greatness and reducing its hopes and investments for the future... For those who like to think short-term only, it also reduces jobs and national capability. Universities and companies around the country have motivated academic achievement and inspirational jobs with Mars and other planetary exploration." 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Europa - New Options

Click on the slide or here to go to the site with the presentation of the Europa mission study team

At this week's meeting of the Outer Planets Analysis Group (OPAG), NASA unveiled new options for exploring Europa as a possible abode of life (and with a third option still to come).  The results are a work in progress, with completion of the studies to come next year.  However, the results so far present entirely new options to finally moving on with the study of Europa.

The new mission proposals come after the sticker shock from the previous proposal, the Jupiter Europa Orbiter (JEO).  When JEO was defined, NASA's budget outlook seemed robust and multi-billion dollar missions possible.  At NASA management's request, its engineers designed a mission that hit the science "sweet spot."  After many months of exploring the Jupiter system, JEO would have carried an extensive suite of instruments into Europa orbit.  In what would have been an engineering tour de force, the spacecraft would have been designed to survive the hellish radiation fields around Europa for a full 90 days (and likely even longer).

Unfortunately, the independent cost estimate for JEO from the Decadal Survey's review pegged JEO's cost at close to $5 billion.  Even for a robust planetary budget, the Survey's members concluded that the price tag was too high and asked NASA to explore cheaper alternatives.

The two mission concepts presented at the OPAG meeting are NASA's response to that request.  To understand how the team arrived at its proposal, it's useful to compare the JEO approach to the Mars exploration strategy.  In the former, a single mission would be flown that would have addressed all high priority goals for Europa exploration except for those that that required a lander.  In comparison, the Mars program has depended on a series of relatively inexpensive missions that each address a subset of questions.  For less than a billion dollars a mission, NASA flew Mars Pathfinder, Mars Odyssey, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and the Phoenix lander.  Only the soon-to-launch Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity broke the billion dollar mark (and rather substantially).  Looking forward, the Mars program has (or perhaps given the new budget realities, perhaps its more correct to say, 'had') planned to break up the multi-billion dollar Mars sample return into three separate missions to reduced peak funding costs.

The question for the Europa mission study team was how to divide the JEO mission goals into manageable chunks.  The job of the Europa mission study team was helped by the fact that the next steps in Europa exploration naturally divide into multiple goals:

  • The ocean goal would measure the extent of the ocean beneath Europa's icy shell and determine its connection to the rocky core of Europa.  This is also, because of the nature of the measurements required, is the only goal that requires orbiting Europa.  
  • The other three goals -- measure the vertical structure and depth of the ice shell, measure the composition of trace materials on the surface to understand the composition of the ocean and whether it might harbor life, and image the surface to understand the processes acting on the ice shell -- would ideally be done from orbit but could be done from a multitude (>30) Europa flybys.

Two key factors had driven JEO's costs upward.  First, to meet JEO's goals from Europa orbit, the spacecraft needed to survive for 90 days or more in the harsh radiation field around Europa.  This required extensive shielding and exotic technologies for both the spacecraft electronics and for the instruments.  Second, collecting and returning all the data in just 90 days required high communications rates and as result high power rates.

Comparison of the two proposed spacecraft with the JEO proposed spacecraft

The ocean measurements that had to be done from Europa orbit required relatively small instruments, low to modest data rates, and only 30 days in orbit.  By focusing the orbiter only on those required measurements, the radiation hardening, data rate, and power requirements dropped substantially.

The remaining measurements still required substantial instruments and high data rates.  The team chose to place these instruments on a flyby spacecraft that would orbit Jupiter and encounter Europa 30+ times over the course of the mission.  (The spacecraft also would encounter Ganymede a number of times, but those flybys were planned for gravity assists and were not science drivers for the mission.)  By going to a multi-flyby strategy, the spacecraft spends only a little time each orbit in the highest radiation fields.  There are also days each orbit to return the data, dropping the requirement for peak data rates and power.

Proposed instruments

The study team estimates that the orbiter and flyby mission each would cost around $1.5B, not including the costs of the launch vehicles.  The assumption is that for budgetary reasons the missions would not launch together, and their launches might actually be years or many years apart. Assuming that funding can be found, this would place the science community in the difficult predicament of deciding which to fly first, knowing that the second mission might never fly.  Is ocean science more important or is the combination of icy shell, composition, and high resolution mapping science more important?

Proposed flyby (top) and orbiter (bottom) spacecraft

Representatives from NASA's headquarters stated their delight in having new, much lower cost mission options to present to Congress for funding.  They are so delighted that they have asked to have the same focused approach applied to a possible Europa lander mission.  Presumably, once the studies for the three possible missions are complete, NASA will ask the science community to prioritize them.  Then NASA will begin the job of securing funding to fly the highest priority mission.  NASA's representatives emphasized that there is no money in the current budget plan to fly any of these missions.  The President's office (OMB) and Congress will have to increase NASA's planetary budget for any Europa mission to begin development.

Note: A previous post, A Pragmatic Approach to Investigating Europa's Habitability provides additional background on the new approach.

Editorial Thoughts: It's exciting to have new Europa options on the table in a cost range that I can imagine one of them eventually being funded. However, looked at another way, the studies demonstrate again that exploring Europa is a multi-billion dollar proposition.  Add the cost of the orbiter and flyby with their launch vehicles together, and you are approaching $4B, not too far from the estimated cost of JEO.

Which mission would I chose?  As currently defined, I can't decide.  The eventual goal would be to get a lander on the surface of Europa, which requires picking a location that is safe (high resolution imaging) and has interesting surface chemistry (imaging spectroscopy).  This would argue for the flyby mission as the higher priority.  That mission, however, would image only small portions of the surface at higher resolution than the orbiter mission would.  (The orbiter would produce a 100 m global stereo map in three colors.)  The flyby craft would carry a sophisticated mapping spectrometer (think of a camera that takes images in hundreds of colors) that would be too large and data hungry for the orbiter.  If a simple spectrometer (for those of you familiar with these instruments, a profiling instrument) could be added or if the imager could image in more colors to get at spectral information, I would favor the orbiter.  I certainly have no special insights into these issues, and included this thought experiment only to suggest the tough choices the planetary community will face if funding becomes available.

Thursday, October 6, 2011


ESA has announced the selection of its next two science missions.  The Solar Orbiter, which will be a partnership with NASA, will study the sun from as close at 42 million kilometers from its surface.  (NASA's Solar Probe Plus, which is in the definition phase (Phase A), will approach the sun as close as 3.7 million kilometers.)  The Euclid mission will launch a space telescope to study dark energy and dark matter in the universe.  (BBC article)

To follow up on my previous post, the heads of NASA and ESA met to discuss the redefinition of their joint Mars program without success.  Unless NASA's budget problems can be resolved fairly quickly, this will leave NASA with no means to collect and cache samples for an eventual Mars sample return mission.  As I understand ESA's budget, this also leaves ESA without sufficient funds to fly it's ExoMars rover.  ESA apparently will seek new partners to share the financial burden and enable the mission (Russia has been mentioned).  (Aviation Week and Space Technology article)

To highlight NASA's budget problems, the agency apparently is considering ending the Cassini mission at Saturn without completing it's current mission planned to end in 2017.  This tidbit comes from the meeting announcement for the next Outer Planets Analysis Group (OPAG) meeting: "NASA has entered an era of strong fiscal constraints, and is struggling to maintain its commitments to missions in development and in flight. Community input will be vital in preserving robust Outer Planets Exploration. This OPAG meeting accordingly will focus on threats to the Cassini Solstice mission, implementation of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, an update on European plans, and studies of potential missions to Europa." (

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Mars Program Troubles

For the last week and half, I've been travelling and away from the internet. I have briefly reconnected to check on family (fine) and the planetary program (not so fine).  Three articles (see below) break the news that NASA will not be able to contribute a launcher, as planned, for the joint ESA-NASA 2016 orbiter.  It appears that ESA will be unable to continue with this mission unless it can convince Russia to provide the launch.

To briefly recap the previous plan, ESA and NASA had planned a 2016 orbiter that would provide atmospheric composition studies to settle the question of methane in the atmosphere and to act as a communications relay for future missions. A joint 2018 rover mission would collect samples for a possible return mission while carrying out a sophisticated in situ search for life, present or past.

According to the news reports, ESA and NASA are still considering the 2018 rover mission with a simplified communications orbiter.

Aviation Week summarizes the reaction among U.S. scientists with this quote: “The European Space Agency is willing to put €850 million [$1.16 billion] to collaborate with us. But for reasons unknown, somewhere in the administration somebody is refusing to release the letter that would allow the head of ESA to collaborate with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden,” Hubbard says. “Why on Earth would you refuse to allow over $1 billion of funding? It borders on the irresponsible.”

Editorial thoughts: Budget politics in the United States are, to put it in terms that avoid stronger four letter words, a mess. The two political parties have opposing views on future spending, and seem to have lost the ability to compromise.  At the same time, NASA reportedly has prioritized the James Webb Space Telescope as its must do science mission, which may reduce funds available for planetary missions.  Between these two rocks, the planetary program is navigating uncertain budgetary waters and may not be able commit to a large project. It may take one or two more election cycles before the planetary budget has a firm course, and that may be at a much lower level than today.

Articles covering this story:

Aviation Week and Space Technology

Space News (most in depth article)

Universe Today

Notes: I will still be traveling for the next two weeks, so posts will be infrequent for a while.